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August 3rd, 2010

I've just discovered a new site, SciTopics.com, that invites scientific experts to submit short reviews on topics in their field.

Some of the topics are really interesting and, because the articles are so short, they can be easily digested in a 5-minute coffee break. So, if you've ever wondered about an obscure topic that you've never found the time to look into, this site offers an opportunity to find out the basics in a very short time. At the moment, there are around 80 posts in the field of neuroscience, and the usefulness of the site can only increase as this number grows.

The best part is that the site provides links to relevant research papers via Scopus, so you can easily find more information relating to the topic. It could be a great place to start a literature search about a topic that is totally new to you, and the requirement for authors to have peer-reviewed publications to their name means it is a heck of a lot more reliable than the usual starting point for these ventures, Wikipedia (yes, we've all done it).

Of course, this site is not only of interest to potential readers but to budding contributors as well. If you want to submit a review, you need to sign up with the site as a contributor (there's a link on the homepage). You will need to have a proven track record in research before they will allow you loose on the site, in order to protect the site's academic integrity. If you can get yourself accepted, this could be a great way to practice your writing skills, raise your profile and inform others about your research. You may even get away with calling it 'outreach'; although, most of the reviews seem to be pitched very much at 'expert' level, so I doubt many lay readers would get much out of them. Maybe you could be the one to change that by writing simple, accessible articles that would fascinate the public?



April 8th, 2010

This week, Simon Singh breathed a sigh of relief as the Court of Appeal backed him in his libel battle against the British Chiropractic Association. Singh had written an article about chiropractic, which the BCA claimed contained libellous accusations against them. In fact, Singh's article merely expressed his own opinions (and a series of verifiable facts) about the legitimacy of chiropractic, and yet he was dragged through the courts in a legal battle lasting two years and costing him thousands of pounds in legal fees.

If the BCA had succeeded in prosecuting him, it would have been the death knell for free speech in the media, and for scientific debate in general. When the legitimacy of a practice touted as a medical treatment cannot be brought into question using scientific evidence as the basis for a reasonable debate, we are in a dangerous situation that puts patients at risk and threatens to hold back scientific advancement considerably.

If you believe that Mr Singh should not have been subjected to legal action for reasonably questioning the scientific claims of a supposedly medical organisation, please sign the petition below calling for a reform of the libel laws in Britain to prevent this ever happening again. If you choose not to sign, don't be surprised when your next journal article sparks legal action from a pharma giant whose interests are at odds with your findings.


Thanks x

February 15th, 2010

Poe's Law

This was (allegedly) a genuine post on an internet forum:

“One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it. [emphasis added]“

awesomestnerd, SmashBoards 2005-Nov-07

(I had heard this before somewhere, but I just rediscovered it on http://ambriguous.wordpress.com/)

As well as making me laugh until my sides split, it is also a good example of a new law I have just discovered: Poe's Law. From Urban Dictionary:

Poe's Law: Similar to Murphy's Law, Poe's Law concerns internet debates, particularly regarding religion or politics.

"Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing."

This law has, I must say, caused me considerable problems in distinguishing parody from genuine opinion, particularly when reading the posts of British National Party supporters in various forums. Take this one, for example:

"This is my country, I am English bored and breed."

Still can't decide whether it was a parody or not. Poor spelling is typical of your average BNP supporter, but THAT terrible?? Jury's still out for me.

February 2nd, 2010


I hope I don't get into the habit of recycling other people's blog posts too often, but I found something else yesterday that just HAD to be posted. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog featured a newspaper ad asking for a research assistant to work at the Maperton Trust. You can see the whole thing here: http://www.badscience.net/2010/01/oh-i-found-you-a-new-job/. The project was on "the development of submolecular harmonic frequencies using ultimatonic field patterning instruments". Or something like that. To be fair, I could have randomly shuffled the order of the words and it would have made just as much sense. In case you are still wondering whether those words actually mean something that you are just too dumb to understand, they also described their research area as "parascientific knowledge". For those who don't know:

Para- (prefix): A prefix with many meanings, including: alongside of, beside, near, resembling, beyond, apart from, and abnormal.

In other words: NOT science.

I decided to check out the Trust's website, http://www.mapertontrust.com/, and was simultaneously amused and horrified to see that they are registered as an educational charity (!) and offer a variety of treatments for ANY illness over the internet. Yep, they just send those psychic vibes down the phone line or something. They also offer badges that they claim repel headlice, at £19 a pop. Their FAQ section offered no insight into how these might work:

How does it work?
Without a comprehensive understanding of technology e.g. that used in space travel, it is not really possible to provide a very satisfactory answer.

So, I emailed them the following request:

Hi there,


I have a "comprehensive understanding of technology e.g. that used in space travel", could you tell me how your head lice badge works please? I will buy one for each of my 3 nephews and 1 niece if you can give me satisfactory explanation of how it works. Also, I don't suppose it also repels spiders, as this could be a great product for arachnophobics?




Michelle Pierce, PhD

and got this in return:

Dear Michelle


Thank you for your email.


Basically, the HELRU works on what we call a 'field effect' and we found the field effect that head lice do not like and put it into a device that is within the badge. The badge contains no chemicals and no electro magnetics and is perfectly safe for anyone to wear. Further than this is proprietary information. The badge comes with a 90 day money back guarantee if returned as sold.




The Maperton Trust

Translation: It doesn't do anything. If it did, they could tell me what kind of field they are using, even if no more detail than that, without risking their precious trade secrets. Electric field? Magnetic field? Ayurvedic energy field? Cow field? Wait - I've GOT it! It's a SHEEP field! It doesn't work unless their customers blindly believe everything they are told...

The power of the placebo effect!

February 1st, 2010

Today, I resolved to spend more of my working hours finding and reading through the latest literature. I sorted and archived my overflowing email inbox last week because it was proving impossible to find anything. Making subfolders with titles like 'stuff to read' and 'login details for misc websites' has made it infinitely easier to conduct my day-to-day business, but has revealed a major flaw in my time management skills. The problem is, 'stuff to read' currently contains 71 unread journal alerts, ranging from table-of-contents mailers to weekly custom PubMed searches. Even if there is only one paper of interest in each of those alerts, it's going to take me a long time to catch up with all of that! A reading week - followed by enforcement of a half-day per week 'reading time' in future - might be a good way to redress the balance. It's funny what can go unnoticed in a choking inbox.

EDIT: Whilst trawling through my backlog, I have noticed that I am actually getting many of the same papers over and over again in my alerts. I have been wasting time reading through the same titles I had received in the previous week's alert! Will have to work out how to reduce the overlap and save myself some time in the future.

January 29th, 2010

I have been hunting for light-hearted material to balance out my previous post, which many complained was a bit over their heads, and today I stumbled upon an absolute gem. Meet Andy Kadir-Buxton: environmental pioneer, medical genius and political mastermind. Oh, and don’t forget self-important, deluded madman...


According to his webpage Andy has cured every illness there is, including migraine, sexual dysfunction, HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, emotional trauma, mental illness and even paedophilia. He can even bring people back from the dead! Impressive for a man with no medical qualifications! Yet Andy is not, as you might expect, a ruthless charlatan attempting to make big bucks out of other people’s misfortune. In fact, he doesn’t ask for any remuneration in return for his expert medical ‘treatments’. He simply wants to share his rather sweet, childlike ideas (which he, of course, believes are revolutionary) with the world.

Andy’s ‘inventions’ are so naive and simplistic that it is almost cute. Unfortunately, his charm is somewhat offset by the fact that most of his ‘treatments’ involve bizarre sexual games and/or violence. For example, the ‘Kadir-Buxton Method’ for curing people of emotional problems involves punching people on both sides of the head so that they temporarily lose consciousness. He reports that this ‘resets’ the brain, causing traumatic memories to be instantly forgotten and allowing patients to get on with their lives. He later compares the effect to ‘rebooting’ the brain to return it to its ‘original state’ (which presumably means they are left babbling like an infant, devoid of all motor control and wetting themselves, but at least they can’t remember being sexually abused, hey?). Adorably, he suggests that crime victims should only be punched twice instead of the recommended three times, so that their memories remain somewhat intact for any future court case at which they may be called to give evidence. If my 5-year-old nephew had said that, it would be cute. As it is, I’m a little worried for Andy’s sanity.

Andy’s other medical masterpieces include the chillingly-titled ‘Handsfree Method’ for bringing about orgasmic vaginal contractions (which, disturbingly, he claims to have been teaching to women since he was a ‘schoolboy’) which he prescribes to ease the pain of childbirth and menstrual cramps. He also recommends a procedure he calls ‘post sex’, in which people get poked in the jugular, Kung-Fu style, to bring about a ‘heightened state of pleasure’. Incomprehensibly, he believes that by sharing this ‘invention’ on his website he is offering a vital service to humanity, by raising the spirits of those unfortunate souls who are unable to experience real sex, including paraplegics (for whom he presents worryingly detailed guidelines for its implementation) and HIV sufferers. The degree of his self-importance and delusion is revealed in his assertion that ‘governments around the world have been looking for a safe alternative to sex this appears to be it’. There are so many things wrong with that statement I am not even going to bother pointing them out.

Medicine, however, is not the only field that Andy is involved in: politics is another of his strong points. His CV indicates that his political influence extends from green issues (such as the invention of the bottle bank and Economy 7) right up to international peace efforts (the establishment of democracy in Eastern Europe – I kid you not). How on earth does he manage all this, you might ask? If you check out his ‘CV’, you’ll see that what he does is to write a letter to the Prime Minister every time he has a good idea, detailing his suggestion. Then, whenever a similar concept is subsequently (and, undoubtedly, independently) introduced, he excitedly squeals, 'That was my idea! He listened to me!' and basks in his imagined glory. Think, ‘I’m Andy Kadir-Buxton, I’m a PC, and Windows 7 was MY idea!’ Bless his soul.

(I came across Andy on the 'spEak You're bRanes' blog, an entertaining collection of incoherent witterings that have been posted on the internet comment sites by a variety of indignant, self-important, frothing, bigotted members of the public. It's an amusing read, even if it does leave you despairing for the future of humanity. Check it out here:

www.ifyoulikeitsomuchwhydontyougolivethere.com )


January 19th, 2010

(no subject)


‘Coherence potentials’ – the new frontier of neuronal coding?

Work recently published in PLoS Biology suggests that neuronal oscillations are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to synchronised neuronal activity patterns...

It seems that the days are long gone when the term ‘neuronal code’ referred to the proportion of discharging nerve fibres, combined with the frequency of action potentials within those fibres. In recent decades, the textbooks have had to be rewritten as ‘neuronal oscillations’ have gained widespread acceptance as an important means of cortical information processing. Rhythmic, synchronised activation of large populations of neurones is now believed to represent a ‘higher’ neuronal code in which the timing of action potentials relative to the phase of a population oscillation carries additional information compared with spike rate alone, and spatially separated cortical regions oscillating simultaneously with matching frequencies can be considered as temporary ‘functional assemblies’ cooperating to achieve a shared goal. As if this didn’t complicate things enough for neuroscientists, now Dietmar Plenz and his co-workers have given us an insight which hints that oscillations are only the tip of the synchrony iceberg. They have identified events in the local field potential in monkey cortex and organotypic cultures which appear to be replicated exactly, and with remarkably short delays, at distant sites in the cortex; even in the absence of subcortical inputs which might otherwise account for the speedy propagation. Bizarrely, these events are irregular in shape – not rhythmic like oscillations – and often contain no particular frequency component; and yet, they are precisely the same shape – and even the same amplitude – at each site.

As a thought experiment, let’s imagine a transient neuronal oscillation in a cortical slice, lasting only a cycle or two, which is recorded almost simultaneously at two distant electrodes on an array. So far, so good? Now, imagine that the oscillation is almost exactly the same amplitude at both sites, and yet isn’t present in some of the intervening electrodes, past which it is presumably propagating. Surprised? You should be. Now imagine the ‘oscillation’ is not an oscillation at all, but is an irregularly shaped potential which is replicated with remarkable precision at the remote site, to the extent that the two distant events overlay each other almost perfectly without any need for normalising or rescaling. You would suspect witchcraft, right? Or, better: some sort of artefact. And yet this is exactly what this meticulously-controlled study found; and, what’s more, the phenomenon relies on both inhibitory and excitatory synaptic transmission, just like a mortal neuronal potential.

These short, spatially-coherent events – dubbed ‘coherence potentials’ for obvious reasons – consisted of a negative followed by a positive excursion of the local field lasting around 200 ms. Many similarly shaped events might be resolved in any field potential recording: there is nothing particularly special about the shape. In addition, there was no characteristic frequency band into which the events could be said to fall; and, in fact, most events were devoid of a prominent frequency component entirely. However, when the negative component was large enough, identical waveforms started to spring up in multiple locations in the nearby cortex with very little lag (typically less than 10 ms). It was as if the originating cortical site had achieved a threshold level of ‘synchrony’ (because, of course, large field events tend to be the result of strong synchrony) and this somehow warranted the immediate relaying of the responsible waveform – in painstaking detail – to some other region. The authors speculated that this allows sufficiently synchronous (and therefore, presumably, interesting) events to be singled out from the cortical ‘noise’ and flagged for the attention of other cortical regions. What is less clear is why the recipient region would require the waveform to be transmitted in this highly precise, loss-less manner. To answer this, it would be interesting to identify the function of the specific sites at which coherence was observed: do the same sites always receive this type of information, or does the recipient region depend upon the site of origin? Perhaps it is merely a stochastic process, a fluke of local cortical connectivity? These questions must unfortunately be left open until a more detailed study is conducted: this is, after all, a preliminary piece of work.

Curiously, the authors pointed out a number of parallels between coherence potentials and the humble action potential. Firstly, both are propagated by saltatory conduction. Coherence potentials appear to ‘jump’ from one spot to another without becoming evident in the intervening regions, at least not at the temporal resolution used in these experiments. This is very unlike the ‘wave-like’ propagation of cortical synchrony that has been observed in experiments and computational models to date. Secondly, they are not degraded in any way as they are propagated, as indicated by the strikingly similar waveform and amplitude at subsequent sites. Thirdly, they are triggered when the local field potential exceeds a certain threshold of synchrony: only the largest negative excursions of field potential were accompanied by coherence potentials. However: unlike action potentials, with their stereotyped waveform and binary mode of information processing, coherence potentials are relatively unrestricted in their shape and could, therefore, potentially convey an enormous amount of information per potential. Just as the discovery of neuronal oscillations added an extra dimension to traditional spike rate-based information processing by providing a temporal reference for spike timing, perhaps coherence potentials represent another – potentially colossal – step towards fully understanding cortical coding. As Karl Friston of UCL was quoted as saying in New Scientist last week, this could represent “a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle” of neural information processing.


November 9th, 2009

I am a panelist for the research organisation YouGov, who are most famous for doing the voting behaviour and social attitudes polls that crop up in the newspapers from time to time. They pay you a small fee for your involvement, which entails filling in short online surveys which are emailed to you a couple of times each month. Not a very good way to make money since they won't pay out until you have reached £50 in survey credits (which can take years), but is a good way to get your opinions heard on matters as diverse as immigration, domestic abuse and grocery shopping. So much so that the British National Party has recently begun urging its members to sign up in order to distort the polls in their favour! If you would like to counterbalance this action, or if you are just interested in surveys, sign up at the URL below and I get extra credits! I will probably never reach the £50 mark anyway, but it is worth a try!

 Thanks Andrew Hagan for providing me with fodder for my first proper post! Apparently the lovely A N Wilson of the Daily Mail has declared war on Science, and Scientists, over the Professor David Nutt scandal. You can read his anti-logic, anti-reason and anti-progress diatribe here:


When it comes to persuading public opinion, every box is ticked! First, he recruits the sympathies of the major demographic groups that constitute the Daily Fail (sic) readership: council estate dwellers, over-protective parents, Anglican Christians, paranoid conspiracy theorists. Then he plays on the irrational fears of the science-ignorant public: foot-and-mouth disease, BSE, the MMR vaccine, stem cell research, GM crops; no stone is left unturned. Finally, he delivers the fatal blow! Does he do this using reasoned, informed and rational debate? Not quite. He calls us  ‘pompous’ and compares us to Hitler. Oh yes.

There appears to be a method in his madness in that he is clearly a religious man (check out some of his previous witterings in the DM), and he reveals himself quite openly as a Darwin-hater and as a person bitter that science has trashed time and again the accepted ‘truths’ of his belief system. So, he resolves to attempt a mass-discrediting of the entire science community at the next whiff of a scientist stepping out of line. But, crucially, his understanding of the word ‘science’ is minimal, to say the least, and it comes across as an ignorant, poorly-reasoned hissy fit. What a pathetically desperate, opportunistic attempt to whip up hatred of a sector of society to further one’s own cause! I would have expected better from the Daily Mail…after all, they’ve had enough practice.

Comments have now closed so it is too late to register your indignation, but don’t worry! Many hundreds of people got there before you and did so on your behalf. This could be the first time that the Daily Mail ‘best rated’ comment contains not only logic, good grammar and rationality, but also – gasp! – no attacks on MPs, ethnic minorities OR pregnant teenagers! A victory for common sense, indeed.

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